The Grammys and the Mexican government would very much like Mexico’s musical output to consist of genteel roots music. Fortunately, NorteñoBlog’s annual playlist 2016 VALE LA PENA shows that Mexican-American musicians have other ideas.
Our playlist has El Komander singing about immigration in two very different, equally urgent songs: once from the vantage point of a mother whose son is missing, and once as a proudly binational drug dealer. The playlist includes a defiant statement of national pride from Los Inquietos and Marco Flores. There are love songs from guitar bands, brass bands, accordion bands, sax bands, and synth bands. El Bebeto and Banda Tierra Sagrada stop by to plug liquor; Fuerza de Tijuana celebrates two real-life American narcos. The guys in Los Titanes de Durango drive way too fast. La Rumorosa curses a terrible boyfriend; Intocable mourns absent amor with distorted guitar and a smoking accordion solo. At the top of the list, El Armenta offers a low-fi Lynchian nightmare of a cumbia about his girlfriend’s dog. All in all, it’s as energetic and varied as any single-genre playlist you’re likely to find.
THIS, Grammy voters, is where the action is.
Even as NorteñoBlog congratulates living legend Vicente Fernández on winning his third Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) (But Not Including Grupero ‘Cause That Shit Suuuuuuuux), we gotta note that this particular win is lame in a very Grammy-ish way. Un Azteca en el Azteca (En Vivo) (Sony) is a live album, 36 tracks of a great singer resting on his laurels, farming the hooks out to an audience who knows every word. It’s the Tony Bennett Unplugged of Regional Mexican (Including Tejano).
Which is to say, it’s nobody’s idea of a relevant piece of music. Even those singing audience members probably don’t consider it relevant. It’s a nice, nostalgic album to play in the background, or to foster discussion of what a living legend Vicente Fernández is. And the album is undeniably pleasant. When Fernández sings great 20th Century works of art like “Estos Celos” and “El Rey,” the man’s phrasing remains a marvel, though his upper range is diminished. I can be glad the album exists without wanting to call it the best of anything.
Truth is, the other four nominees were more deserving. Perpetual nominees and one-time winners Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea recorded their own delightful version of “Estos Celos” on Tributo a Joan Sebastian y Rigoberto Alfaro (East Side). (Sebastian wrote the song for Fernández, who sang it and turned it into one of the 20th Century’s great works of art.) The Mariachi Divas’ wolf whistling is a little kitschy, but their harmonies bring out the longing in Sebastian’s melody. NorteñoBlog has already endorsed Banda El Recodo‘s Raíces (Fonovisa), a roots album with modern snap, and Joss Favela‘s Hecho a Mano (Sony), a pop album played with norteño dexterity. La Maquinaria Norteña‘s Generación Maquinaria Est. 2006 (Azteca/Fonovisa) is a predictably unrelenting dance album for sax, accordion, and rock solid rhythm section.
Except for Mariachi Divas, all these albums scored radio hits in either the U.S. or Mexico. True, hit singles aren’t sure signs of artistic merit. But given the choice between energetic music that resonates in millions of people’s lives, or an album that might as well be Vicente Fernández singing his catalog from behind glass in a museum, I know what I’ll choose. Fernández’s win reduces an entire pop music world, enjoyed by millions of Americans, to irrelevant folklore. We can only hope Joss Favela will be recognized as a vital aesthetic force before he turns 70.